We feature a lot of Brian Engh’s stuff here–enough that he has his own category. But lately he has really been outdoing himself.

The wave of awesome started last year, when Brian started posting videos showing builds and suit tests for monsters–monster suits, monster puppets, monster you-name-its. Like this monster-sculpting timelapse from last August:

And this suit test from last October:

Brian even wrote a blog post about how he builds monsters.

Things really ramped up this May with the release of “In Mountains”, the first video in a three-part series from Brian’s Earth Beasts Awaken album (which is badass, and available for free here).

If you’re thinking that the Mountain Monster has some Estemmenosuchus in its background, you are correct–that astonishing real-world critter was one of Brian’s inspirations, among many others.

More awesomeness is coming in July, when the next video, “Call to Awaken”, is slated to be released. Here’s a teaser:

I have even more exciting Brian-Engh-related news, but I am not at liberty to discuss that just yet. Hopefully sometime this fall. Stay tuned, true believers. UPDATE: Now I’m at liberty to discuss it!



I think it’s fair to say that this “bifurcation heat-map”, from Wedel and Taylor (2013a: figure 9), has been one of the best-received illustrations that we’ve prepared:

Wedel and Taylor 2013 bifurcation Figure 9 - bifurcatogram

(See comments from Jaime and from Mark Robinson.)

Back when the paper came out, Matt rashly said “Stand by for a post by Mike explaining how it came it be” — a post which has not materialised. Until now!

This illustration was (apart from some minor tweaking) produced by a program that I wrote for that purpose, snappily named “vcd2svg“. That name is because it converts a vertebral column description (VCD) into a scalable vector graphics (SVG) file, which you can look at with a web-browser or load into an image editor for further processing.

The vertebral column description is in a format designed for this purpose, and I think it’s fairly intuitive. Here, for example, is the fragment describing the first three lines of the figure above:

Taxon: Apatosaurus louisae
Specimen: CM 3018
Data: —–YVVVVVVVVV|VVVuuunnn-

Taxon: Apatosaurus parvus
Specimen: UWGM 155556/CM 563
Data: –nnn-VVV—V-V|VVVu——

Taxon: Apatosaurus ajax
Specimen: NMST-PV 20375

Basically, you draw little ASCII pictures of the vertebral column. Other directives in the file explain how to draw the various glyphs represented by (in this case) “Y”, “V”, “u”, and “n”.

It’s pretty flexible. We used the same program to generate the right-hand side (though not the phylogenetic tree) of Wedel and Taylor (2013b: figure 2):

Wedel and Taylor (2013b: Figure 2).

Wedel and Taylor (2013b: Figure 2).

The reason I mention this is because I released the software today under the GNU General Public Licence v3.0, which is kind of like CC By-SA. It’s free for anyone to download, use, modify and redistribute either verbatim or in modified form, subject only to attribution and the requirement that the same licence be used for modified versions.

vcd2svg is written in Perl, and implemented in part by the SVG::VCD module, which is included in the package. It’s available as a CPAN module and on GitHub. There’s documentation of the command-line vcd2svg program, and of the VCD file format. Also included in the distribution are two documented examples: the bifurcation heat-map and the caudal pneumaticity diagram.

Folks, please use it! And feel free to contribute, too: as the change-log notes, there’s work still to be done, and I’ll be happy to take pull requests from those of you who are programmers. And whether you’re a programmer or not, if you find a bug, or want a new feature, feel free to file an issue.

A final thought: in academia, you don’t really get credit for writing software. So to convert the work that went into this release into some kind of coin, I’ll probably have to write a short paper describing it, and let that stand as a proxy for the actual program. Hopefully people will cite that paper when they generate a figure using the software, the way we all reflexively cite Swofford every time we use PAUP*.

Update (12 April 2014)

On Vertebrat’s suggestion, I have renamed the program VertFigure.


Mummified mouse - closeup

Here’s a nice thing: friends and relatives just assume (correctly) that I will want whatever dead animals they find. So I was not completely surprised when I got a call from my brother Ryan (pillager of the Earth) asking if I wanted a dead mouse he’d found mummified at the back of an unused cupboard. Happily this was over the holidays so I could get the specimen in person and not have to deal with mailing it.

This was not destined to be my mummified mouse, however. My son, London, has started a collection of his own. One of the first real skulls in his collection was that of a rat that we found dead in our front yard last year. I cut off its head and we boiled and cleaned the skull together (I still need to post about that). Then we mounted it in a clear plastic bottle that had previously contained toothpicks, so he could take it for show-and-tell. Last fall a second rat turned up dead in the yard; that one is still in the freezer, awaiting complete skeletonization. The mystery of the plague of dead rats was solved when we got home one evening and found our cat, Moe, in the front yard with only the hind leg of a third rat hanging out of his mouth. If I could just train him to kill them and not eat them, we could make a rat army

Funny side-note: we keep Skulls Unlimited catalogs around for leisure reading. London was looking through one not long after we prepped his rat skull and he saw that you could get a fully-prepared natural bone skull for about twenty bucks. That price seems about right to me, given the amount of work and care that has to go into cleaning, but London was outraged: “Why would people pay TWENTY DOLLARS for a rat skull when they could just clean their own!?”

That’s my boy! I didn’t have the heart to tell him that some people don’t have a ready supply of rats lying around. He’s not old enough to understand that level of deprivation.

Mummified mouse - in box

So, obviously the mummified mouse was going to show-and-tell. But I didn’t want it to get destroyed. My cheap and low-tech solution was to get a rigid plastic display box from the local hobby store ($5.99 for a two-pack) and stuff it with cotton balls. We cleared some of the cotton around the skull first so it would be more visible. Knowing how third-graders can be when exciting things get passed around, I also glued the lid on. The mouse and the cotton balls are completely immobile even when violently shaken, and hopefully they’ll stay that way indefinitely. I forgot to include a scale bar in either of these photos or to measure my damned murine, but the box lid is 5 inches on side. HeroClix Knifehead showed up because kaiju are notorious attention hogs.

Now, to see if Mousenkhamun can survive the rigors of third grade. I’ll keep you posted.

Vicki book arrival 3

When we last left my better half, Dr. Vicki Wedel, she was helping to identify a Jane Doe who had been dead for 37 years by counting growth rings in the woman’s teeth. That case nicely illustrated Vicki’s overriding interest: to advance forensic anthropology by developing new methods and refining existing ones. To that end, for the past few years she has been working with her PhD advisor, Dr. Alison Galloway at UC Santa Cruz, to revise and update Alison’s 1999 book, Broken Bones: Anthropological Analysis of Blunt Force Trauma. The revised and much expanded (504 pages vs 371) second edition, co-edited by Vicki and Alison, came out Monday (Amazon, Amazon.co.uk).

You can read the whole table of contents on Amazon (click to look INSIDE!), but the short short version is that the book has three major sections. The first covers the science and practice of trauma analysis (pp. 5-130), and the second classifies hundreds of common fractures throughout the skeleton, with illustrations (pp. 133-313). The chapters in these sections were all written by Vicki, Alison, and another of Alison’s former students, Dr. Lauren Zephro, solo and in varying combinations. Lauren, whom I always think of as “the Amazon cop”, is a 6-foot blackbelt forensic anthropologist for the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office. If push came to shove I have no doubt that she could beat me to death with her bare hands and then produce a technical analysis of my corpse.

The final section (pp. 314-410) consists of nine case studies contributed by forensic anthropologists, pathologists, medical examiners, forensic and medical artists, and a DoD casualty analyst, based across the Anglophone world from Hawaii to Scotland. There’s some grim stuff in there: trauma to the homeless and elderly, from intimate partner violence, and from child abuse. It’s gut-churningly awful that the defenseless suffer from bone-breaking violence; it’s always been amazing to me that people like Vicki, Alison, Lauren, and the other contributors have both the courage to face these horrors and the technical chops to make the unspeakable solvable.

Beyond that unavoidable darkness, if you’re interested in the many, varied, and often just plain weird ways in which people die, the book is a treasure trove. There’s an elderly woman lying on her deathbed for six years, slowly turning into a natural mummy… (wait for it) …while her daughter went on living in the same house. There’s a classification of plane crashes with a description of what human remains will be found and over what area. There are people hit by trains; the funniest line in this very serious book is the deadpan and unsurprising, “The typical pedestrian hit by a train is male and often highly intoxicated.”

Fig 7-3 train skull

That’s from the top of page 122. At the bottom of the same page is my one contribution to the book, which also appears as the cover art (yeah, nepotism, whatcha gonna do). There’s a story behind this. This guy–yes, male, dunno if he was intoxicated–was hit by a train and his head was sheared in half, with the somewhat fractured but mostly intact facial skeleton separated by a lot of missing bone from the occipital region. With no way to obtain the deceased guy’s permission to use his mortal remains in the book, Alison and Vicki didn’t feel comfortable including their photos, so I spent a weekend bashing out a technical drawing for them to use instead. That reawakened my interest in pen-and-ink work and led to the dödö pöst.

I should say two things right here: first, that yes, I am hijacking the rest of the post to talk about myself. (Is anyone really surprised? I thought not.) Second, that I have had no training and possibly my stippling violates Art Rules or best practice guidelines of which I am ignorant. But I hope it also illustrates what can be achieved in a couple of days, with about $15 worth of supplies, by a guy whose only rule is “möre döts”.

So anyway, if you’re curious, here’s the method I use for my pen-and-ink illustrations:

  1. Get a decent-sized photo of the object to be drawn. I usually roll with $2 8x10s from MalWart, in this case one for each half of the skull.
  2. Tape the photo down to your work surface. I have a large, incredibly hard, perfectly smooth cutting board that I use for this, but in a pinch you could use just about anything, including just a larger piece of paper. Cardboard off the backs of desk calendars is nice.
  3. Over the photo, tape down a piece of tracing paper.
  4. Lightly trace the outline of the photo and all the major details in pencil.
  5. Once you’ve gone as far as you can with that, peel up one side of the tracing paper, unstick the photo from the work surface, and remove it. Stick the tracing paper back down the work surface.
  6. Using the uncovered photo as a reference, pencil in any other salient details by eye. Also contour lines for shadows. All of the pencil lines are going to be erased later, so don’t be shy.
  7. Whenever you decide you’re done with the pencil, get a good pen and start tracing, directly over the pencil lines. I tend not to be too persnicketty about my tools but decent pens are a real help here. For these recent works, I picked up a three-pack of beige-tubed Micron pens for $7 (this set).
  8. In all of the following pen-related steps, be careful to keep your big stupid hand and arm off the wet ink you just laid down–one careless smear can ruin a few hours’ work. Having a work surface that you can rotate is nice, so your pen hand can approach the drawing from any angle. Anytime I have to lay my hand on the drawing, I put down a piece of clean scrap paper first. Even if the underlying ink is dry, it just feels like a smart precaution.
  9. Once the lines are on, add döts to taste. With a little experimentation, you can get patterns of dots to not only indicate light and dark but also suggest textures. Different pen tips and amounts of pressure will yield dots of different sizes, which can also be useful. Dense, overlapping dots can produce an effect similar to scratchboard. BTW, sometimes I do “gear down” and place each dot with thought and care, but in the dense sections I just rat-a-tat-tat like a Lilliputian jackhammer. Try different speeds and see what you can tolerate.
  10. When you’re done dötting, at least to a first approximation, and you’re dead certain the ink is all dry, get a decent eraser and erase all of the pencil lines. I used one of those clicky mechanical erasers because it was cheap and soft enough to not tear up the paper.
  11. Re-ink any lines lightened by the erasing. I find that the döts are usually unaffected, but lines are often knocked down a bit by the eraser work. I suppose it would be cleaner to just draw natively in pen, with no prior pencilling and therefore no erasing, but the few times I’ve tried it, it hasn’t gone well. YMMV. If you’re drawing a 3D solid, this is a good time to employ an old illustrator’s trick, which is to make the bottom outline heavier and darker than the rest, to subtly convey a sense of weight.
  12. Scan, touch up as needed in GIMP, post to blog, bask in self-admiration.

In this case I had a few more steps, which consisted of making variants of the drawing and test-driving them by Vicki and Alison so they could pick their favorites.

Skull drawing - A

This is just embarrassing: after scanning the two drawings and doing a little touch-up, I just scooted them together until they looked like a skull. The problem is that the occiput is nowhere near anatomical position. See that flange of bone above the ear-hole, pointed down and right at a 45-degree angle? That’s the back end of the zygomatic arch, and it should be aimed at the forward stump of the arch, which is just down and back from the eye socket.

Skull drawing - B

Here’s the B version, where I was working entirely off of the zygomatic arch ends, and trying to get the skull into anatomical position. Scientifically this is probably the best variant I produced (I’m not claiming it’s the best possible), but aesthetically it’s a little crowded.

Skull drawing - F1 - original on white

I’ll spare you versions C-E, all of which just scooted the back end of the skull around in an attempt to find a balance between scientific and aesthetic concerns. Here’s the winning F version, which got used for the figure, and became the seed variant for the cover.

Skull drawing - F3 - yellow no fill

For the cover, we tried a lot of things, including the white skull on a black background, and one that was simply inverted from the figure. By this point the publisher had sent Vicki some test versions of the cover, and I thought it would be cool if the drawing was in the same color as the cover text, so I sampled that color from the publisher’s sample cover image and applied it to all of the drawn bits. They knocked it down a few tones for the printed version, so happily it’s not this garish.

Incidentally, I had never tried to replace a bunch of discontinuous areas of the same color with another color in GIMP, so I had to look it up. The two key steps are Select > By color, with the threshold set to zero (or not, if you want to grab a bunch of related colors at once), and “Fill whole selection” in the Bucket tool. Hat tip to this dude and his commenters.

Skull drawing - F5 - yellow 17pc fill

One last step: I thought the bare, unfilled yellow version looked too flat, so I tried different levels of fill to make the skull pop out from the background. I didn’t use bucket fill here–too fiddly with so many dots and edges. Instead I created a new layer of solid yellow and dropped the opacity to 17%. Then went to the drawing layer and used the magic wand tool to select the whole non-skull background. Then popped back to the yellow layer and cleared that selection, leaving yellow fill only in the boundaries of the skull outline. I also tried 10% and 25% opacity for the fill layer, but 10% was too subtle and 25% was starting to swamp some of the detail in the drawing. Between goofing around with colors and opacity levels we went through 10 versions at this stage, of which the one above is the ultimate champion.

So, that’s how the cover art came to be. Back to the book. There’s a bibliography with 1237 references (Vicki knows), and an index. The book is hardbound, with a printed cover and no dustjacket, and IMHO reasonably priced at $65, currently a few bucks less on Amazon. You probably already know whether you want a copy. If so, do the right thing–it’s not too late to get it by Christmas.


Wedel, V.L., and Galloway, A. 2013. Broken Bones: Anthropological Analysis of Blunt Force Trauma, Second Edition. Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, 504 pp.

Wedel, V.L., G. Found, and G.L. Nusse. 2013. A 37 year-old cold case identification using novel and collaborative methods. Journal of Forensic Identification 63(1): 5-21.

It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to regular readers that PeerJ is Matt’s and my favourite journal. Reasons include its super-fast turnaround, beautiful formatting that doesn’t look like a facsimile of 1980s printed journals, and its responsiveness to authors and readers. But the top reason is undoubtedly its openness: not only are the article open access, but the peer-review process is also (optionally) open, and of course PeerJ preprints are inherently open science.

During open access week, PeerJ now publishes this paper (Farke et al. 2013), describing the most open-access dinosaur in the world.


It’s a baby Parasaurolophus, but despite being a stinkin’ ornithopod it’s a fascinating specimen for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it’s the most complete known Parasaurolophus. For another, its young age enables new insights into hadrosaur ontogeny. It’s really nicely preserved, with soft-tissue preservation of both the skin and the beak. The most important aspect of the preservation may be that C-scanning shows the cranial airways clearly:


This makes it possible for the new specimen to show us the ontogenetic trajectory of Parasaurolophus — specifically to see how its distinctive tubular crest grew.


But none of this goodness is the reason that we at SV-POW! Towers are excited about this paper. The special sauce is the ground-breaking degree of openness in how the specimen is presented. Not only is the paper itself open access (and the 28 beautiful illustrations correspondingly open, and available in high-resolution versions). But best of all, CT scan data, surface models and segmentation data are freely available on FigShare. That’s all the 3d data that the team produced: everything they used in writing the paper is free for us all. We can use it to verify or falsify their conclusions; we can use it to make new mechanical models; we can use it to make replicas of the bones on 3d printers. In short: we can do science on this specimen, to a degree that’s never been possible with any previously published dinosaur.

This is great, and it shows a generosity of spirit from Andy Farke and his co-authors.

But more than that: I think it’s a great career move. Not so long ago, I might have answered the question “should we release our data?” with a snarky answer: “it depends on why you have a science career: to advance science, or to advance your career”. I don’t see it that way any more. By giving away their data, Farke’s team are certainly not precluding using it themselves as the basis for more papers — and if others use it in their work, then Farke et al. will get cited more. Everyone wins.

Open it up, folks. Do work worthy of giants, and then let others stand freely on your shoulders. They won’t weigh you down; if anything, they’ll lift you up.


Farke, Andrew A., Derek J. Chok, Annisa Herrero, Brandon Scolieri, and Sarah Werning. 2013. Ontogeny in the tube-crested dinosaur Parasaurolophus (Hadrosauridae) and heterochrony in hadrosaurids. PeerJ 1:e182. http://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.182

The LSE Impact blog has a new post, Berlin 11 satellite conference encourages students and early stage researchers to influence shift towards Open Access. Thinking about this,  Jon Tennant (@Protohedgehog) just tweeted this important idea:

Would be nice to see a breakdown of OA vs non-OA publications based on career-stage of first author. Might be a wake-up call.

It would be very useful. It makes me think of Zen Faulkes’s important 2011 blog-post, What have you done lately that needed tenure?. We should be seeing the big push towards open access coming from senior academics who are established in their roles don’t need to scrabble around for jobs like early-career researchers. Yet my impression is that in fact early-career researchers are doing a lot of the pro-open heavy lifting.

Is that impression true?

We should find out.

Here’s one possible experimental design: take a random sample of 100 Ph.D students, 100 post-docs, 100 early-career researchers in tenure-track jobs and 100 tenured researchers. For each of them, analyse their last ten years of publications and determine what proportion are paywalled, what proportion are free to read (e,g, on arXiv or in an all-rights-reserved IR), and what proportion are true (BOAI-compliant) open access.

An alternative approach would be to randomly sample 1000 open-access papers (from PLOS and BMC journals, for example), and 1000 paywalled papers (from Elsevier and Springer, say) and find the career-stage of their authors. I’m not sure which approach would be better?

Who is going to do this?

I think it would be a nice, tractable first project for someone who wants to get into academic research but hasn’t previously published. It would be hugely useful, and I’m guessing widely cited. Does anyone fancy it?


Georg Walther has started a hackpad about this nascent project. Since Jon “Protohedgehog” Tennant has now tweeted about it, I assume it’s OK to publicise. If you’re interested, feel free to leap in!

OMNH baby Apatosaurus

I was at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in March to look at their Apatosaurus material, so I got to see the newly-mounted baby apatosaur in the “Clash of the Titans” exhibit (more photos of that exhibit in this post). How much of this is real (i.e., cast from real bones, rather than sculpted)? Most of the vertebral centra, a few of the neural arches, some of the limb girdle bones, and most of the long bones of the limbs. All of the missing elements–skull, neural arches, ribs, appendicular bits–were sculpted by the OMNH head preparator, Kyle Davies. Kyle is one of those frighteningly talented people who, if they don’t have what they need, will just freaking build it from scratch. Over the years he has helped me out a LOT with the OMNH sauropod material–including building a clamshell storage jacket for the referred scapula of Brontomerus so we could photograph it from the lateral side–so it’s about time I gave him some props.

Atlas-axis model with Kyle

Case in point: this sweet atlas-axis complex that Kyle sculpted for the juvenile Apatosaurus mount.

Atlas-axis model by Kyle Davies

Most fish, amphibians, and other non-amniote tetrapods only have a single specialized vertebra for attaching to the skull. But amniotes have two: a ring- or doughnut-shaped first cervical vertebra (the atlas) that articulates with the occipital condyle(s) of the skull, and a second cervical vertebra (the axis) that articulates with the atlas and sometimes with the skull as well. Mammals have paired occipital condyles on the backs or bottoms of our skulls, so our skulls rock up and down on the atlas (nodding “yes” motion), and our skull+atlas rotates around a peg of bone on the axis called the odontoid process or dens epistrophei (shaking head “no” motion). As shown in the photos and diagrams below, the dens of the axis is actually part of the atlas that fuses to the second vertebra instead of the first. Also, reptiles, including dinosaurs and birds, tend to have a single ball-shaped occipital condyle that fits into the round socket formed by the atlas, so their “yes” and “no” motions are less segregated by location.

Anyway, the whole shebang is often referred to as the atlas-axis complex, and that’s the reconstructed setup for a baby Apatosaurus in the photo above.  In addition to making a dull-colored one for the mount, Kyle made this festive version for the vert paleo teaching collection. Why so polychromatic?

Atlas-axis model key

Because in fact he built two: the fully assembled one two photos above, and a completely disassembled one, some of which is shown in this photo (I had to move the bigger bits out of the tray so they wouldn’t block the key card at the back). I originally composed this post as a tutorial. But frankly, since Kyle did all of the heavy lifting of (a) making the thing in the first place, (2) making a color-coded key to it, and (d) giving me permission to post these photos, it would be redundant to walk through every element. So think of this as a self-study rather than a tutorial.

Atlas-axis model by Kyle Davies - labeled

Oh, all right, here’s a labeled version. Note that normally in an adult animal the single piece of bone called the atlas would consist of the paired atlas neural arches (na1) and single atlas intercentrum (ic1), and would probably have a pair of fused cervical ribs (r1). Everything else would be fused together to form the axis, including the atlas pleurocentrum (c1), which forms the odontoid process or dens epistrophei (etymologically the “tooth” of the axis).

Romer 1956 fig 119 atlas-axis complex

Here’s the complete Romer (1956) figure from the key card, with a mammalian atlas-axis complex  for comparison. Incidentally, the entire book this is drawn from, Osteology of the Reptiles, is freely available online.

Apatosaurus axis-atlas complex Gilmore 1936 figs 5 and 6

And here’s the complete Gilmore (1936) figure. Sorry for the craptastic scan–amazingly, this one is NOT freely available online as far as I can tell, and Mike and I have been trying to get good scans of the plates for years. Getting back on topic, single-headed atlantal cervical ribs have been found in several sauropods, especially Camarasaurus where several examples are known, so they were probably a regular feature, even though they aren’t always preserved.

Also, as noted in this post, it is odd that in this specimen of Apatosaurus the cervical ribs had not fused to the first two vertebrae, even though they normally do, and despite the fact that the vertebrae had fused to each other, even though they normally don’t. Further demonstration, if any were needed, that sauropod skeletal fusions were wacky.

Varanops atlas-axis complex Campione and Reisz 2011 fig 2C3

For comparison to the above images, here is the atlas-axis complex in the synapsid Varanops, from Campione and Reisz (2011: fig. 2C).

Those proatlas thingies are present in some sauropods, but that’s about all I know about them, so I’ll say no more for now.

There is a good overview of the atlas-axis complex with lots of photos of vertebrae of extant animals on this page.

Previous SV-POW! posts dealing with atlantes and axes (that’s right) include: